Ministry of Interior police carried out a controversial court warrant Thursday and arrested 14 young girls who were staying at an NGO that protects victims of sexual trafficking.
The girls—all ethnic Vietnamese under the age of 16—wept as they were taken into custody on charges of illegal immigration.
The case highlights the contradictions inherent in Cambodia’s policies on immigration and sexual exploitation of children, as the girls, who were recently rescued from brothels, were on their way to Prey Sar prison Thursday evening.
The girls, most of whom were rescued in a police raid on three Svay Pak district brothels, were in the custody of Afesip in Tuol Kok district for about a month.
On Monday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Prosecutor Khut Sopheang signed a warrant for their arrest, citing their alleged illegal entrance into Cambodia. But Afesip officials maintain the girls are trafficking victims, and in some cases have been trafficked by their parents.
“I am quite fed up,” said Pierre Legros, the former director of Afesip who now acts as an adviser to the NGO. “We have tried to improve Cambodian laws, but [the government] doesn’t see trafficking as an issue. I am not against the government’s immigration laws, but we must consider these girls as victims.”
Phnom Penh investigating judge Buning Bunnary said earlier this week that because the girls are underage they will only be kept in prison for one month while an investigation in under way.
Legros, however, feels that even that is too long. He said prison is as dangerous an environment as the brothel.
Co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said he directed police to make the arrests. “It is a common thing, I am the Minister of Interior and all we are doing here is implementing the immigration laws, like they have in other countries.”
But some members of the Ministry of Interior’s Juvenile Protection Against Child Exploitation Department are not happy with the court’s decision to issue the warrant.
“My police regard those girls as the victim,” said Ten Borany, deputy director of the ministry’s criminal department. “But when we handed over the case to the court and the court investigated they found out that these girls are illegal immigrants.”
Ten Borany said he still recognizes the girls as the victims and is searching for the brothel owners and their accomplices. “There are some complications with this job,” he admitted. He said he could not resist the court’s order to arrest the girls.
Afesip officials and other observers have said the municipality is seeking to make an example out of the girls.
Last month, Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara vowed to find and deport all illegal immigrants in the city, especially sex workers.
“Illegal immigrants without visas must be sent back,” he said. “Brothel workers must be sent back…. Find them and bring them to me, I will send them back.”
The remarks came in a speech delivered to city officials after a series of cases suggesting Vietnamese girls were being trafficked through Cambodia to work in Malaysian brothels.
Chea Sophara was reached in Australia Thursday, but declined to comment.
One of the girls, Nguyet, claimed she is 13 years-old, but looks younger. She said she was born in Vietnam and moved to Cambodia when she was two or three years-old. Her family lives in Phnom Penh, she said, and she is anxious to go back to school.
Though she does not want to go to prison, she does not want to stay at Afesip either. “We have all asked that we be released so we can go back to our homes, but we are waiting for a decision from the manager [of Afesip].”
Legros agreed that he could not keep the girls at Afesip indefinitely. “But if we release these girls, their family will just send them back to Svay Pak,” he said.
Naly Pilorge, deputy director of the human rights NGO Licadho, said she is worried that trafficking victims, rather than traffickers, are being targeted.
“We are extremely concerned that the court is focusing on the victims and not the crime that has been committed, and that is trafficking,” she said. It is important that the issues of immigration and trafficking be dealt with separately, she said.